Travel: Latin America - The king of the jungle

A trip to Tikal in Guatemala is well worth the effort. By Rhiannon Batten
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The Independent Culture
I wasn't altogether sure that I'd done the right thing. The early- morning drive to Tikal was rattly and bumpy, and seemed to involve an expensive trickle of park entrance fees. I'd hijacked my boyfriend from the blissful Caribbean islands off Belize to fly into a jungle and suffer the sweaty hour's bus ride to the park. The day was already getting hot and we were feeling increasingly bothered.

Tikal is tucked away deep in El Peten, the lowland jungle area of Guatemala, and is one of the grandest Mayan cities ever constructed. After the exotic descriptions of my old archaeology textbooks, it seemed a bit of a let- down to be turning up at the site in a mini-van, with a pathetic pen-knife in hand rather than a hulking machete.

Escaping the mini-bus, we were soon trotting along the path to the ruins, and within minutes the sense of romance had returned. This really is jungle. At this early time of day we felt like the site's only visitors and, as the lethargic morning mist started to peel back its cover, the landscape came gradually into view.

The damp green vegetation was dense and elaborate; great furling leaves swept the sides of the path and high above us the massive furry limbs of giant trees stretched out chocolatey brown against the sky. But looking at Tikal in widescreen is not enough. For the full stereo effect you have to imagine the jungle sounds. Staccato shrieks swoop from bushes, strange knockings bounce off mossy buildings, howler monkeys screech - and all this is pierced by the drills, coos and grunts of innumerable other creatures. Underneath all, the vegetation itself seems to hiss and buzz.

Against such a multi-textured background it becomes easier to step away from the modern world and to imagine what it would have been like for the Spanish priest who first stumbled into this hidden site, 300 years ago. Even now, much of the architecture still lies buried beneath vegetation.

The first of the ruins are dark, leafy mounds that bulge sinisterly from the ground. A little further on is the Great Plaza, the hub of ancient Tikal. Here, granite pyramids loom up on four sides around what is now a grassy courtyard, some doing better for their age than others but all impressive.

There is something violently exciting about turning a corner and finding something so massively unexpected. Other sites may have a similar effect, but few do it quite so dramatically as at Tikal. Looking up at these giant grey structures, it's virtually impossible to resist hoicking yourself up their enormous steps for a different perspective.

The scale at Tikal is immense. The temples are vast, the trees that stretch around the site are mammoth, the wildlife is overgrown (even the butterflies here are the biggest I've ever seen) and, from the top of the plaza's Jaguar Temple, the view is as vast as the eye will allow. It's as though you're a 20th-century Gulliver, stepped back into an ancient Brobdingnag.

The Mayans first came to Tikal in around 700BC, attracted by its relatively lofty position above the surrounding swamps. Most of the Mayan sites that people visit today were constructed during the Classic Maya period (AD300- 900) in a frenzy of temple-building. Tikal was no exception and throughout this time the city's architecture became increasingly sophisticated. By AD400 it was the major power centre in this part of Mesoamerica.

Astronomy, science and religion played a large part in life and the Mayan calendar was precise. From the complicated inscriptions carved into the stone columns still on view at Tikal, the local Mayan history can be well dated. Except for one serious blip, the city flourished, until its decline in about AD900.

Some archaeologists put the collapse down to an earthquake, others to political unrest, but the evidence is not decisive. There was certainly a severe drought, but the current thought is that the state system simply broke down - a combination of too little food production and too much temple construction. The forest had its revenge, and closed back around the city.

In comparison with many other Amerindian sites in Central America, it's far easier here to let the imagination run free, but don't let it carry you too far. The temples are only a small part of Parque Nacional Tikal, a playground for budding Indiana Joneses that covers about 370 square kilometres. In our enthusiasm we set off down one of the many jungle paths and continued on until, after an hour and a half, we still hadn't arrived back at a temple.

In fear of serious dehydration, we retraced our abstract steps, fortunately stumbling into one of the park guides along the way. He plucked fresh limes from a tree in the bushes and squeezed the juice into water for us; lemon aid for our parched bodies, and a use for my pen-knife after all.

South American Experience (0171-976 5511) has return flights on Continental from Gatwick to Guatemala City for pounds 484. Flights from there to Flores, the nearest town to Tikal, cost about pounds 100 return. An alternative approach is by bus or air from Belize City. From Flores, mini-vans to Tikal cost about pounds 6, as does entrance to the park. There are hotels on site if you want to stay longer